25. The Bruery
Original location: Placentia, CA
On 2009 list?: No
Our favorite beers: Black Tuesday, Goses are Red, Mash
The Bruery now has more than a decade under its belt, transitioning from hot young thing at the beginning of the 2010s to a sort of elder statesman among barrel-aged specialists by the time we reach the present day. That has been more or less the arc of a lot of breweries founded around the same time, but The Bruery has arguably grown and aged with more graciousness than many of its peers, building an epic back-catalog of beloved barrel-aged beers in the process.
Rarely has any brewery’s average output been so fit for aging, which makes The Bruery bottles a natural fit for collectors interested in assembling verticals or unique tastings. Beers like Black Tuesday are absolute behemoths, weighing in far over the maximum ABV allowed in many states, taking advantage of the leniency of California beer law. The Bruery Terreux, meanwhile, keeps up a never-ending stream of creative new sour releases, seemingly never in any danger of exhausting its supply of inspiration. It’s a brewery that has an unusual way of making every release seem “important.”
So too did The Bruery impact the beer scene in the 2010s by pioneering its subscription/membership model, The Bruery Reserve Society, which gave the company a way to monetize its most diehard fans, while also assuring that its rarest releases would find a way into their hands. As the challenges faced by the industry mount, they’re probably glad they did.
24. Grimm Artisanal Ales
Original location: Brooklyn, NY
On 2009 list?: No
Our favorite beers: Lambo Door, Lumen, Double Negative
Few breweries ever went on such a pronounced hot streak in Paste blind tastings as Grimm, which once landed three different IPAs within the top 26 of a blind tasting of 247, making it very clear at the same time that they had an excellent grasp on the emerging hazy IPA style. What made it all the more amazing was that at the time, all of Grimm’s beer as being contract brewed at several different breweries, as husband and wife partners Joe and Lauren Grimm would make weekly drives to each location, just to see their dream slowly come to life. Their eventual rise to the top, and the establishment of an actual, brick-and-mortar Brooklyn brewery to call their own, ranks among the biggest success stories of all the breweries of this era who started out as “gypsy brewers,” determined to one day put down roots. Grimm’s success is the blueprint for exactly that.
As the earlier blind tasting reference should make clear, these guys are obviously masters of the NE-IPA/hazy IPA game, ranking up there with breweries such as Other Half, Finback and Industrial Arts Brewing as the best to be found in the immediate NYC radius. So too have they taken home multiple GABF medals for their Double Negative imperial stout, a flawless display of everything non-pastry imperial stout can be. Combined with a program that is also rife with a wide array of hoppy, fruity or brettanomyces-infused sours, Grimm is a pretty consistent picture of what a thriving brewery looks like in 2019.
23. Burial Beer Co.
Original location: Asheville, NC
On 2009 list?: No
Our favorite beers: Surf Wax, Separation of Light and Darkness, Skillet Donut Stout
Even before the news arrived that Asheville darling Wicked Weed had officially sold to mega-corp AB InBev, opinion had already begun to crystalize in one of America’s densest, most vibrant beer cities: Burial had usurped the crown. By the time news of the sale broke, it had become academic—Burial had taken up the torch of being Asheville’s most important brewery, and they’ve only grown stronger in the three years since, while setting their sights on rarified air through the opening of a truly beautiful second location, dubbed the Burial Forestry Camp. Opened only months ago on the grounds of a 1930s lumber camp, it represents the brewery ascending to a new level of refinement, even as they hold onto their singularly weird design aesthetic, dependent as it so often is upon metal band-sounding apocrypha and the depiction of death and rebirth.
Their lineup hews to some of the most beloved styles in American craft brewing today, especially in the realm of IPA, stout and saison. In each category, they have modern classics, from Surf Wax as one of the best pure IPAs, hazy or not, available on the East Coast, to the perennial classic that is Skillet Donut Stout, one of the best pure coffee stouts in the U.S., and an always solid pilsner in the form of Shadowclock. Perhaps most impressive was the time Burial took home #1 in a Paste blind tasting of 116 saisons, with their superlative Separation of Light and Darkness, a beer that has reappeared in several variants since. Ultimately, it’s here in the passion for saisons that Burial tips its hand—although the brewery may theme itself with over-the-top nomenclature and crazy labels, their true passion is for subtle interplay between flavors.
22. de Garde Brewing
Original location: Tillamook, OR
On 2009 list?: No
Our favorite beers: Bu Weisse, Oude Desay, The Kriek
If there’s a story that really sums up the spirit of the decade, in terms of establishing a brewery, it’s that of de Garde’s Trevor and Linsey Rogers, the husband and wife duo who dedicated their tiny brewing project in 2012 to the pursuit of exclusively spontaneous fermentation. To do so, they searched up and down the Oregon coast, planting samples of wort in various locations in order to get a feel for the brett-y terroir of their home state. In the end, it was Tillamook that was chosen as host to what would go on to become one of the country’s best wild/sour breweries; a boutique-y operation that still sells the majority of its beer out of the taproom, but factors into “best brewery” conversations on the other side of the country nonetheless.
de Garde, as has often been observed, was on the forefront of many different movements at once. Obviously, they were pioneers for the beauty and simplicity of spontaneous fermentation, but simply making use of brettanomyces was hardly the only notable aspect to the company the Rogers founded. The longtime flagship Bu Weisse was especially significant, not only for its trend-setting fruited versions, but for the fact that it demonstrated how flavorful an extremely low-alcohol (only 2% ABV!) beer could be, under the right conditions. Looking at the modern alcohol market, which is prioritizing caloric consumption and lower ABVs, this was a very relevant observation. Likewise, de Garde essentially built a model for the modern, “on premise” brewing company, operated with minimal staff and intended for a modest audience. A brewery like de Garde was never meant to grow beyond a certain level, which at the time was almost a radical intent in and of itself. It was always a project meant to find a more humble form of homeostasis, while continuing to experiment and produce outstanding, small-batch beers.
21. 3 Floyds Brewing Co.
Original location: Munster, IN
On 2009 list?: Yes
Our favorite beers: Permanent Funeral, Dark Lord, Alpha King
There weren’t many breweries that captured the 2010s zeitgeist more perfectly than 3 Floyds, even if Dark Lord Day actually stretches back as far as 2005. Still, it’s safe to say that the phenomenon of Dark Lord as an “event beer” didn’t truly take root in the beer geek consciousness in a major way until near the beginning of the 2010s, and ran wild from there. Take it from me: I was there in 2011, cracking open bombers of homebrew to share with the very thirsty participants, who had brought beers from around the country to parlay with one another as they stood in line, waiting to sample the fabled imperial stout. It was the sort of beer experience you’re unlikely to ever forget, regardless how much you may have drank at the time.
Situated in northwest Indiana, 3 Floyds has had an interesting relationship with Chicago in particular, entering and exiting distribution in the city multiple times over the years to keep up with production demands, which only increased the fervor for their beer. At times, the hype for classic 3 Floyds beers like the Zombie Dust “pale ale” (we all know it’s an IPA, in truth) extended well beyond people who regularly drank craft beer at all, to the point that macro lager drinkers were showing up at package stores, asking for Zombie Dust, unaware of what they were even ordering. That was the potency of 3 Floyds, near the middle of the decade in particular.
One shouldn’t simply reduce the brewery to a caricature, however. They aren’t simply brewers of IPA and imperial stout, despite how they’re often characterized. Rather, 3 Floyds has applied its particular verve to practically any style one can imagine throughout this decade, while preserving the charms of classic pours like Robert the Bruce, the company’s long-established scotch ale. Under its veneer of metal rock indifference, beats a heart that still cares.
20. Cigar City Brewing Co. (CANarchy)
Original location: Tampa, FL
On 2009 list?: No
Our favorite beers: Jai Alai, Guayabera, Hunahpu’s
If Oskar Blues retains a sort of “honorary leader” title among the brewery brands acquired by CANarchy this decade, then Cigar City has essentially become “the muscle.” The steady national expansion of the beloved Florida brand has generated eye-popping sales figures, which have been all the more impressive given the industry-wide slowdown, and helped keep the overall CANarchy portfolio looking very healthy indeed. Much of this growth has been driven by a national embrace of the brand’s classic Jai Alai IPA, as the beer finds its way into far more hands than ever before, along with the launching of rising new brands like Guayabera pale ale.
More important to us at Paste, though, is the fact that the greater scale really hasn’t hurt the beer one bit—if anything, the last few batches we tasted of Jai Alai were arguably better than we’d had in the past. It’s an important beer in the history of IPA evolution, to be sure—a stepping stone between the pithy bitterness of true West Coast IPAs and the over-the-top juicy/dank assertiveness of modern hazy IPA. Jai Alai, and a few of its contemporaries (Creature Comforts Tropicalia is a good comparison), split that difference—they’re not hazy, and they have an appreciation for some degree of subtlety, but they’re also extremely inviting, with lightly sweet orange fruitiness and a tamped-down level of bitterness that arguably makes for the perfect middle ground. Suffice to say, we’re not at all surprised to see that brand thriving on a national level; it seems built to do exactly that.
So too did Cigar City have a hand, along with 3 Floyds, in helping to establish the idea of the high-profile beer release party this decade, as Hunahpu’s Day became a sensation, and often a headache for the brand in terms of planning and execution as the passion for their beer far outstripped what ownership was expecting. Still: That’s probably the kind of problem you’d prefer to have.
19. Breakside Brewery
Original location: Portland, OR
On 2009 list?: No
Our favorite beers: Breakside IPA, Fitzcarraldo, Coming Out Party
Breakside displays the steady consistency of a brewery that seems almost built to be underrated—the kind of brewery that constantly wins medals and places impressively in blind tastings, but still doesn’t generate a lot of beer geek hype at the end of the day. They have that quietly confident quality that makes a place easy to overlook, and a flagship (Breakside IPA) that has won tons of hardware, not for being bombastic but for being perfectly composed and subtle. It’s the sort of beer that is a strong contender on any given year to walk out of GABF with the gold medal in American IPA, because there’s no denying that it’s exactly what it’s supposed to be.
Like a lot of the other breweries in our top 20, Breakside can also boast a high degree of eclecticism—they’re good at many different styles, and have placed impressively in any number of Paste blind tastings over the years, from pilsner and IPA to barleywine and Christmas ales. They are, in short, the opposite of one-trick ponies, and the sort of brewery that increases the overall quality of any blind tasting where they’re present. Even in the space of a single tasting, as in the last time we blind-tasted 324 IPAs, Breakside managed to land two significantly different IPAs into the top 15. That accomplishment sums up the capacity of these Portland brewers to inject variety even into the framework of a single style.
18. Half Acre Beer Co.
Original location: Chicago, IL
On 2009 list?: No
Our favorite beers: Beer Hates Astronauts, Bon Hut, Magick is Purple
Chicago’s Half Acre truly was on the bleeding edge of the city’s craft beer revolution from the very beginning. When they first got rolling in 2007, contract brewing out of a small facility in Wisconsin, the city’s beer scene could hardly be said to exist at all outside of the pioneering efforts of Goose Island. By the time they’d opened up their own on-site facility in the northern neighborhood of Lincoln Square, though, a group of contemporaries had coalesced around them. Together, they pushed the Chicagoan beer geek’s state of mind firmly into the future, but no one did it with more of a verve for American hops than Half Acre. They remain perhaps the city’s preeminent IPA brewery, regardless of the opacity of the beer you may be holding in your hand, or the brand name on the can (Half Acre has had some complicated history, here). Clear, hazy, it doesn’t matter: Half Acre does an exceptional take on it.
This has all been borne out by Paste blind tastings, of course, across a wide array of styles—when we last blind tasted 324 IPAs, their Beer Hates Astronauts was the second highest-ranking non-hazy IPA in the entire competition, which is saying something, given the sheer murkiness of that particular field. Likewise, in our field of 143 wild/sour ales, Half Acre’s wine barrel-aged Magick is Purple found itself in elite territory, cruising to #3 overall, showing the brewery’s startling range. This has been a constant of the company—the more time goes by, the more they expand the wheelhouse of where they can be expected to excel. If Half Acre started out in the estimation of drinkers as a “hoppy brewery,” they’ve become much more well-rounded in the process, and that bodes well for this sort of ranking.
Factor in their efforts to bring a truly main event invitational beer fest to Chicago by establishing the Far & Away festival, and you’ve got top 20 brewery potential.
17. Prairie Artisan Ales
Original location: Oklahoma City, OK
On 2009 list?: No
Our favorite beers: Prairie Ale, Standard, Bomb!
Between their obvious passion for saison and wild ales that informed the birth of the company, and the runaway success of just about everything related to the imperial stout Bomb!, Prairie Artisan Ales produces products to appeal to just about any style of beer geek. For lovers of hops, the Phantasmagoria DIPA beckons. For the saison purists, Standard is a reliable go-to, and the original Prairie Ale remains, in our estimation, one of the best classic-style saisons ever brewed in the U.S., with obvious allusions to the likes of Saison Du Pont.
Of course, when you’re thinking of Prairie these days, there’s a good chance you’re thinking about imperial stout. The creation of Bomb! certainly was a significant moment for the genre, presaging the arrival of pastry stout while also remaining a bit above that fray—Bomb! may be a decadent beer, but even in its crazier variants it retains some degree of gravitas that is now often lacking in pastry stout contemporaries. The original Bomb!, however, is arguably still the masterpiece of the series: waves of chocolate, vanilla and coffee, balanced by the earthiness and slightly piquant fruitiness of chiles, reining the finished beer in from becoming too one-dimensionally sweet.
Prairie also earns credit as the birthplace of offshoot American Solera from brewmaster Chase Healey, one of the country’s best pure wild ale producers, although slightly too young to earn its own space on the list.
16. Triple Crossing Beer
Original location: Richmond, VA
On 2009 list?: No
Our favorite beers: Interstellar Burst, Fault Line, Tiny Pils
The 2010s were certainly a decade of tumultuous growth within the Richmond beer scene, transforming a modest brewery community into a burgeoning tourist destination with a predilection for hazy IPA in particular. Today, the city can boast a strong array of IPA producers, both heralded (The Veil) and underknown (Final Gravity Brewing Co.), but the city’s strongest overall brewery usually seems to find itself somewhere in the middle. Those in the know seem to recognize that Triple Crossing represents a special confluence of elements that appeal to both the masses and devotees of the idiosyncratic, but at the same time the brewery often fails to receive credit for just how outstanding each new release can be expected to be. Their batting average, as it were, is impeccable—they’re a brewery that does not put out bad beer, and that separates them from so many of the darlings whose weekly can releases fluctuate wildly as a consequence of the “limited release” obsession that currently drives the industry. Triple Crossing is consistent, and that’s especially true within the sphere of Paste’s blind tastings, where the brewery has had a sterling track record—most recently a #3 finish among 102 lagers. Even more impressive? They once scored #2 and #4 with two different beers in a blind tasting of 176 DIPAs. Now that is dominance.
But the funny thing is, even those who properly appreciate one aspect of Triple Crossing (like their well-loved IPAs, such as Falcon Smash) have a tendency to overlook just how well they do certain other styles, and the entire lager world in particular. Moreso than almost any other hyped IPA brewery we can think of, the people at TC are clearly obsessed with lager beer styles, and they pursue them with a dedication to variety that is extremely admirable. That translates to a wide array of pilsners, for instance, but this isn’t a surface-level of examination of lagers—Triple Crossing is also brewing all variety of helles, dunkels, kellerbiers and beyond, and at any given time there’s probably four or five lagers available at the taproom. That alone makes for an extremely rare sight at a brewery taproom in 2019, and it’s time they were recognized for it.
15. Trillium Brewing Co.
Original location: Boston, MA
On 2009 list?: No
Our favorite beers: Scaled, Raspberry Soak, Melcher Street
Poster children of the NE-IPA movement, few breweries benefited more from the rise of hazy IPA than Trillium, one of several companies whose name became indelibly linked to the style regardless of whatever they might have been pouring in the taproom that day. Although the roots of hazy IPA stretch back to the pioneering work of breweries like The Alchemist and Maine Beer Co., it was brewers like Trillium (and contemporaries like Tree House) that not only brought the style into prominence as it exists today, but are largely responsible for the modern business plan of hyped, limited release can batches of hazy IPA, sold directly from a brewery taproom. Like it or hate it, that method of doing business was incredibly influential to where we are today.
And indeed, Trillium makes some lovely hazy IPAs, and always has, although we’re often inclined to prefer the original, “single dry hopped” versions more than the DDH craziness with which they became associated. Those beers have a tendency to veer dangerously close to “hop burn” territory, as we’ve written about in the past, which has become one of the primary pitfalls to hazy IPA’s popularity.
At the same time, however, the focus on IPA has also caused some of the best beer from Trillium to be overlooked over the years, as the brewery’s range of fruited sours and barrel-aged wild ales are often world class—perhaps their strongest overall feature. It’s these beers that help push the brewery into the upper echelons of the 2010s.
14. Russian River Brewing Co.
Original location: Santa Rosa, CA
On 2009 list?: Yes
Our favorite beers: STS Pils, Beatification, Pliny the Elder
Had the hazy IPA movement not cropped up in the middle of this decade, Russian River might well be a shoo-in for the #1 spot on this list—for the first half of the decade, at least, there was really no other brewery that could be used to better describe the zeitgeist of the age. In the era before hoppy beers turned toward “juiciness” as a driving factor, there was no IPA more universally revered than their legendary Pliny the Elder, or the even rarer still Younger—which we’ve still never actually sampled, all these years later, although we hope the day does finally come.
This is not to say that Russian River has somehow diminished as the industry has changed—far from it, in fact. Rather, the palette of flavors they provide is arguably now more vital than ever, providing as it does a thoughtful alternative to what is currently in vogue. Pliny the Elder remains an absolute classic of the genre, balancing citrus zestiness and resin with pine needles and assertive bitterness, while the more easily attainable Blind Pig IPA falls close on the family tree. Professional brewers have likewise made the often underappreciated STS Pils into a truly cult beer at this point, and the wild side of the company is as pure and immaculate as ever. All it takes is one sip of classic beers like Beatification, Supplication or Consecration to see that the folks at Russian River are masters of their craft, and direct inspirations upon so many of the breweries that were founded this decade with “wild beer” firmly in their sights. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that of all the breweries on this list, Russian River may be the most imitated of the 2010s, at least in terms of the desire of many brewers to one day live up to this level.
13. Toppling Goliath Brewing Co.
Original location: Decorah, IA
On 2009 list?: No
Our favorite beers: Pseudo Sue, Mornin’ Latte, Fire, Skulls & Money
One of the less reported beer stories of the 2010s may have been the emergence of top-tier breweries from the heart of what is derogatorily referred to as “flyover country,” whether that’s the likes of Prairie in Oklahoma, Side Project in Missouri or Toppling Goliath in Iowa. In the years that had come before, the beer scenes of these places had tended to be characterized by a reliance on traditional or “basic” beer styles, and those who lived in notable beer hubs such as San Diego likely pictured the average Midwest brewery as a dusty old brewpub with a menu of pale ale, amber ale and brown ale, etc. The likes of Toppling Goliath refuted those expectations and then some, showing that trend-setting, cutting-edge beer could be expected to hail from every corner of the craft beer horizon.
Few breweries did this while building such a voracious fanbase in the last decade as Toppling Goliath. For much of the decade, demand was so great that beer geeks in nearby hubs like Chicago were essentially taunted by the popularity of classic offerings like Pseudo Sue, a beer named after a Chicago landmark, which rarely if ever found its way into the city. In more recent years, as production has ramped up, it’s become a bit easier to sample TG’s wares, culminating in a few Paste blind tasting appearances that were quite impressive indeed—especially Pseudo Sue nabbing a #4 finish among 151 pale ales. Couple that with the fervor for the brand’s massive barrel-aged stouts, like SR-71, Mornin’ Delight or the now legendary KBBS, and you have one of the breweries that most helped define the current shape of “prestige stout.”
Perhaps the only thing holding TG back from an even higher ranking, in fact, is that we’ve never had a chance to sample many of the brewery’s most sought-after releases. But in that, we’re in good company.
12. The Rare Barrel
Original location: Berkeley, CA
On 2009 list?: No
Our favorite beers: Map of the Moon, Alchemy + Magic, Hyper Paradise
You’ll have to try pretty damn hard to find another brewery with such consistently creative and transcendent sour releases as The Rare Barrel was able to boast throughout the 2010s. No matter what the unexpected combination of ingredients, or what style of beer was acting as a base, or what occasion said beer was intended to celebrate, Berkeley’s barrel wizards were always able to come up with a resulting that was both surprising and deeply satisfying.
A Rare Barrel beer can be decadently over-the-top in its own way, boasting so much fruit that it transcends a question like “What does an apricot taste like?” in something like Map of the Sun/Map of the Moon, or transport you to a tropical getaway, as in the passionfruit and mango-redolent Hyper Paradise. Or, it can lean more into the spirit that once existed in the barrel itself, as in the spicy and festiva Home, Sour Home holiday beer, or the cocktail-inspired Alchemy & Magic, aged in gin barrels with cucumber, juniper and rosemary. The genius of The Rare Barrel is in both conception and execution—they conceive ideas that go beyond what most would attempt, and then bring them to life in a way most wouldn’t be able to match if they tried.
11. Austin Beer Garden Brewing Co.
Original location: Austin, TX
On 2009 list?: No
Our favorite beers: Industry Pils, Hell Yes, Rocket 100
Whenever I need to explain to somehow how awesome Austin Beer Garden Brewing Co. is—this happens more often than you’d think—there’s always one easy way to drive this point home. It’s this: From 2016-2018, in a three-year span, ABGB won gold medals at the Great American Beer Festival in no fewer than four categories. Those categories were as follows: German Pilsner, Czech Pilsner, American-Style Pilsner, and Munich Helles.
You shouldn’t need to know anything more than that to realize that you are dealing with a brewery whose grasp over German lager-making is on an entirely different level. To achieve one gold medal in a classic style like German pilsner is an achievement that most brewers strive for over the course of their entire careers. Brian “Swifty” Peters and Amos Lowe of ABGB made the best pilsner across three different pilsner substyles, plus a bonus gold in helles, and did it in only three years of entering the competition. What more could you possibly even achieve? You wouldn’t even be able to blame them if they just elected to retire undefeated at that point; it would be well within their right.
If this kind of thing happened across IPA styles, ABGB would be the hottest brewery in America, but of course this is pilsner we’re talking about, so the brewery’s celebrity still remains on the niche side. In the modern beer era, there are more and more great pilsner breweries every year, which is something we’re very grateful for. But I’ve yet to have any one that can match up to the beautiful, floral brilliance and impeccable balance of bitterness found in ABGB’s Industry Pils, which won our last pilsner blind tasting without breaking a sweat.
10. The Alchemist
Original location: Stowe, VT
On 2009 list?: No
Our favorite beers: Heady Topper, Focal Banger, Luscious
The lore surrounding the creation of Heady Topper, acknowledged by most as the ur-beer of the hazy IPA substyle, has always been fraught with a certain equally hazy mythology. The Alchemist first opened as a brewpub in Stowe in 2003, and the creation of Heady followed some time not long thereafter, but the beer then was by no means the sensation it would become. Indeed, it’s not really even clear if the beer was always “hazy” or semi-hazy from the start, or whether it became that way over time, but the one thing we can say with certainty is that it slowly built a small but passionate cult of local drinkers. By the end of the 2000s, a particularly eagle-eyed observer might have been able to see the beginning of a new substyle beginning to take shape, built up and down the East Coast by breweries such as Maine Beer Co. and Lawson’s Finest Liquids, but The Alchemist and Heady Topper were always the names you heard first. Even by the beginning of the 2010s, though, there was no indication that the scions of these beers would eventually become completely ubiquitous in the IPA market.
Today, it’s funny to think of Heady Topper, a beer that was mythical to so many for a number of years, as being just one more “hazy IPA,” but there’s indeed a certain segment of the beer geek market that thinks of it as a beer that has essentially been left behind by the style’s evolution. We’d prefer to be a bit more positive—it remains essential even now, having remained a static anchor of NE-IPA’s beginning, even as the style raced past it (and in many cases, off a cliff). It is, especially when fresh, a bang-up DIPA, just as The Alchemist’s own Focal Banger is an utterly delicious, lighter-weight variant. Their ultimate impact is most closely tied to the beers they inspired, but you can say that of any innovator. And few breweries have ever been so ahead of the game on what would become a major stylistic evolution as The Alchemist.
9. Hill Farmstead Brewery
Original location: Greensboro Bend, VT
On 2009 list?: No
Our favorite beers: Edward, Everett, Anna
If you could go back in time to the mid-2000s and explain to the ownership of some successful regional brewery that in the next decade, the most popular format for critically acclaimed breweries would be operating in small capacity and making the customer come to you, in order to buy beer to go, is there any chance they would have believed such a thing would be possible? Outside of comparisons like the abbeys of Belgian monks, where customers had been carting away beer for centuries, would American brewers have believed a place like Hill Farmstead could be successful, much less produce some of the country’s most rabidly sought after beers?
It was, suffice to say, a vision of how a brewery could operate that upended the established norm of what it was to manage a successful beer business. Here, success wouldn’t be measured by percentage growth of dollar sales or increased volume of production. Rather, it would be measured in art.
Did that sound pretentious? Probably, but it’s almost difficult to discuss the romantic aspects of Shaun Hill’s creation without slipping into flowery language. The beers produced on that little Vermont farm have run the gamut of styles, unified in their quality, whether they’re pale ale or saison, porter or barrel-aged wild ale. We’ve still never had a chance to taste quite as many of them as we’d like, but we’ve had enough to possess a deep respect for everything Hill Farmstead has done to elevate the genre.
8. Maine Beer Co.
Original location: Freeport, ME
On 2009 list?: No
Our favorite beers: Lunch, Dinner, Mean Old Tom
Outside of perhaps the likes of Heady Topper, the concept of NE-IPA as “hazy IPA” didn’t arrive all at once, pristine and fully formed. Rather, it evolved gradually in that direction, which means there are a number of “missing link” breweries that still exist along that particular family tree. Maine Beer Co. is the apex of those missing links; a brewery that helped spur the development away from bitter, pithy West Coast IPA but also stopped well short of the modern juice bombs. Their particular brand of IPA, encapsulated in the now archetypal Lunch, strove for all things balance—a sublime middle ground between citrus and green flavors, sweetness and dryness, and a perfectly calculated level of bitterness. There may be no IPA in the world, even now, that is more of the cosmic “happy medium”—Lunch is the kind of beer you could put into the hands of practically anyone who likes hops, and they would enjoy it.
Of course, you could also say that of most of Maine’s other beers as well. This is a brewery dedicated to approachability and the almost lost art of subtlety; one with confidence in its consumer to be able to tell that ingredients (hops included) exist in a beer without them being cranked up to maximum intensity all the time. Consider their superlative Mean Old Tom, a top 10 finisher the last time we blind tasted stouts under 8% ABV, which features vanilla beans in such a subtle way that you actually might not quite realize they’re present at all. Do they improve the beer? Certainly—the vanilla adds a subtle richness and amplifies the beer’s gentle cocoa nature. Maine simply trusts its drinker to enjoy this style of “vanilla stout” without barging into a taproom to demand “WHERE’S THE VANILLA?!?”
Now, if only we could get our hands on Dinner a little bit more often …
7. Side Project Brewing
Original location: Maplewood, MO
On 2009 list?: No
Our favorite beers: Saison du Ble, Fuzzy, Bière du Pays
If my years of attending beer festivals have taught me anything, it’s that beer geeks are more than willing to look silly by sprinting across a festival site, if it means they can beat the line to Side Project Brewing. It’s a scene I’ve watched play out year after year, which is as good a metaphor as anything for how captivating the releases from the small St. Louis brewery have been since the very beginning. Even at a festival filled with absolute titans of the industry, those people are still making a beeline for Side Project when the doors open, which marks them as elite among the elite.
Side Project was, as the name would imply, an offshoot of an earlier brewery, as brewmaster/owner Cory King first established the brand at Perennial Artisan Ales (also on this list) before making the jump to a facility of his own. Their specialty over the years has varied, but typically falls within the realm of wild ales, with an emphasis on clarity and simplicity more than beers that feature a collection of crazy ingredients. King’s mixed culture saisons and spontaneous fermentation beers feature some of the most carefully curated strains of yeast and bacteria in the brewing world—they are living (literally) testaments to just how geeky one guy can be about microfauna.
The sheer depth of flavor in those releases, seen especially in the variants of beers such as Saison du Ble and Saison Fermier, completely justify the enthusiasm for the brand—they are each subtle symphonies of tart, fruit, funk and refreshment. Much noise is also made about the brand’s barrel-aged stouts, of course, but for our money it’s the wild ales that make Side Project impossible to replicate.
6. Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.
Original location: Chico, CA
On 2009 list?: Yes
Our favorite beers: Hazy Little Thing, Summerfest, Otra Vez
Of all the big, regional powerhouses out there, is there a “legacy” brewery that exists with more goodwill toward it than Sierra Nevada? Our answer would be “no,” and rightly so—both through the evolution of their beer portfolio, and their groundbreaking work in charitable giving, Sierra Nevada has kept itself as one of the most relevant and indispensable breweries of the decade.
The expectation, with a brewery this old, has essentially become a certain degree of ossification, as the brewery resists change and clings to the past, but although SNPA is never going anywhere, Sierra Nevada has also continued to evolve in big ways. Their Hazy Little Thing has had by far the largest national impact of any brand in bringing an approachable version of NE-IPA to the masses, and proven phenomenally successful to boot, helping Sierra return to volume growth after the beginning of the industry slow-down. So too has the brand launched successful and unique takes on such such styles as gose (Otra Vez), brett beers (Brux) and even their fair share of pilsners (Nooner, Summerfest) over the course of the decade. Now, if only the classic Sierra Nevada Stout was still in stores! Regardless, there are few finer places to enjoy a beer than Sierra’s beautiful facilities, especially the expansive (and drop-dead gorgeous) campus it built in Fletcher, NC.
Moreover, the brewery captured national attention once again this decade with their response to the devastating Camp Fire in California, as the Resilience Butte County Proud IPA project challenged breweries around the country to brew the same beer in unison, donating profits to the Camp Fire Relief Fund. The project ultimately raised more than $8 million for families (including Sierra brewery employees) whose homes were destroyed in the fire, in a truly unique display of craft beer community philanthropism.
5. Jester King
Original location: Austin, TX
On 2009 list?: No
Our favorite beers: Atrial Rubicite, Aurelian Lure, SPON – Méthode Traditionelle
When Jeff Stuffings and Michael Steffing first began laying aside barrels on a 200-acre ranch west of Austin in 2010, it’s fair to say they were exploring some pretty lightly trod territory in American craft beer. A decade ago, if you asked your average beer geek about “barrel-aged beer,” the majority of them would invariably have assumed you were speaking of bourbon barrel-aged stouts in the vein of Bourbon County Brand Stout or Founders KBS—these were the archetypes by which the average consumer learned how wood could interact with beer. But where those beers were more showcases for the spirits that were once aged inside their wooden structures, Stuffings and Steffing imagined a beer project that would instead seek to bring stateside the sublimely subtle qualities of classic European barrel-aged beer styles. They wanted U.S. beer drinkers to experience tart, funky styles such as gueuze, which Belgian drinkers had been familiar with for centuries.
And yeah—they did a good job of it as well. Jester King went on to become perhaps the most generally outstanding and sought-after of all the U.S. wild ale specialists, inspiring countless other breweries to look beyond the clean-fermenting world of American ale yeast. Their traditional ales were flawless, but at the same time, Jester King forged ahead with American ingenuity, pushing the limits of aspects like “how much fruit can we stick in a barrel?” in the creation of all-time classics such as Atrial Rubicite, profoundly changing the American idea of fruited sours in the process. To a corner of the beer world that had traditionally been limited to fruit such as cherries (in kriek, etc.), Jester King brought a willingness to get downright weird, experimenting with how every fruit flavor imaginable could be transformed with cocktails of wild yeast and bacteria. And in the process, they added another bonafide to the history of “Weird Austin,” a city blessed by both world-class pilsner and sours.
4. Allagash Brewing Co.
Original location: Portland, ME
On 2009 list?: Yes
Our favorite beers: White, Coolship Resurgam, Mattina Rossa
To the list of things in this world that can be considered “certain,” alongside both death and taxes, we propose the addition of one more addendum: the quality of new Allagash releases. More so than any other brewery on this list, that’s the most earnest compliment we can pay to the legendary Maine bastion of Belgian brews: Every time they put out a new beer, it feels like there’s a specific reason for it to exist. It feels like something that has been pored over and refined, sanded until smooth and inspected for perfection. Nothing feels haphazard, or trend-chasing. They are the most intentional of breweries.
It all starts with White, of course—the beer that built the brewery, and an effortless winner the first time we blind-tasted wheat beers at Paste. Its greatness has never been diminished, and if anything, we can appreciate it more now than ever before, especially as it’s now available in cans (what a time to be alive). It’s a classic case of a workhorse flagship brew, now so rare in American brewing, the success of which funds all the experimentation and flights of fancy that Allagash is known for. Having White in the portfolio is a blessing of the highest order.
Beyond White, how can one even narrow down the field of memorable Allagash releases over the course of the last decade? Coolship Resurgam is one that certainly comes to mind with immediacy, providing a style-defining template for American-made gueuze, funky and complex in a way that few drinkers had ever experienced before unless they’d literally visited Belgium. But it’s just one entry among so many sparkling releases, whether they’re fruity wild ales, stouts or even the requisite, occasional IPA. There were very few breweries we were more excited to receive beer from, from the start of the decade until its end.
3. Fremont Brewing
Original location: Seattle, WA
On 2009 list?: No
Our favorite beers: BBA Dark Star, Shingle Town, B-Bomb
In all our years of blind tastings at Paste, there’s never been an anomaly so pronounced as the sheer dominance of Seattle’s Fremont Brewing. Across myriad styles, and across the course of years, Fremont distinguished itself time and time again, despite not being a brewery that many geeks would have cited as one of the hottest or trendiest around. In our blind tasting of 144 barrel-aged stouts, their BBA Dark Star finished at #1, winning with a beguiling combination of complex flavors and a velvety mouthfeel that none of its competition could match. That would have been a statement win, in and of itself, but Fremont’s blind tasting performance eventually became something of a running gag of the entire Paste blind tasting series. In no particular order, Fremont also finished with the #1 lager out of 102 entries, the #1 kolsch out of 41 entries and the #21 IPA out of 324 entries. And that’s not even mentioning beers like B-Bomb, a perennial top 10 finisher in our Christmas ale tastings. No matter what style it was we were tasting, it always seemed like Fremont knew precisely how to excel.
The other commonality? None of those beers won their blind tastings by being the biggest, the loudest or the most brazen of the entries in their field. Fremont isn’t a brewery that makes beer with the philosophy of “more” and “bigger,” which goes some way in explaining why they don’t have people beating down the doors for most of these offerings. Their signature is the crafting of classics via subtlety and focus on the little things. In Dark Star, it’s the sublimely soft, chewy texture. In the spectacular hazy IPA Shingle Town, it’s the approachable balance of lightly juicy fruit impressions and dry finish. In Pride, their winning kolsch dedicated to Seattle’s LGBTQ community, it’s the delicate interplay of nouveau American hops and a pillowy, bready malt base. Every Fremont beer can be expected to contain hidden depths in this way. If we were going exclusively by “average ranking” in Paste blind tastings, it would probably be difficult for any other brewery to come close.
2. Tree House Brewing Co.
Original location: Charlton, MA
On 2009 list?: No
Our favorite beers: Julius, Double Shot, Green
We’ve spent a lot of time in this list talking about hazy IPA, either directly or obliquely. We’ve hit upon elements of its origin in entries on The Alchemist and Maine Beer Co. We’ve listed off breweries known for their killer hazies, be it Trillium or Great Notion. But after almost 9 years, we’re not sure anyone’s still done it any better than Tree House, one of the first breweries to rise to prominence specifically on the back of hazy IPA. Since 2011, their house style has managed to fuse over-the-top hop presentation with a certain, ephemeral je ne sais quoi that set them apart from many of their peers; an ability to work within the bounds of decadence to deliver beers that were somehow never difficult to drink, despite how vivacious they often were. If you’ve had much in the way of bad hazy IPA in the last five years (and god knows we have), then you’ll know precisely what I’m talking about. Hell, Tree House’s beers even manage to look as good as they taste.
Consider, for a moment, the company’s legendary Julius IPA, which should be easy to acknowledge as a masterpiece to anyone with any kind of appreciation for the style. It’s a microcosm of everything that Tree House does well when it comes to hops—pillowy soft in terms of mouthfeel, but also ethereally light. Bursting with fruity impressions of mango, passionfruit and citrus juice, but simultaneously dry on the finish, with just enough residual sweetness to lend the fruit flavors a lifelike impression. Ever-so-slightly bitter, to balance out that sweetness. A glass of Julius, unlike so many of the beers it inspired, is incredibly easy to drink, and incredibly pleasant as well. That’s what sets it apart.
And of course, there is more to Tree House than just hops. For as good as their IPA lineup is, their stouts are very much their equal, whether we’re talking about the frequently released That’s What She Said or the brilliantly balanced Double Shot coffee stout. Together, they form a one-two punch that is just about unrivaled in terms of pure, hedonistic delight.
1. Firestone Walker Brewing Co. (Duvel Moortgat)
Original location: Paso Robles, CA
On 2009 list?: No
Our favorite beers: Union Jack, Mocha Merlin, Sucaba, Feral One, Pivo
First things first: You’ll note that I was unable to stop at merely three beers in the “our favorite beers” field of this entry, but I’ll take this opportunity to invoke the writer’s privilege. Firestone Walker simply makes too many good beers to stop at three, and that’s an obvious element of why they find themselves here at #1. But on a deeper level, they check every box we could use to measure “best of the 2010s.” They have the overall beer portfolio, deep variety and eclecticism to be #1. They’ve been deeply influential on multiple aspects of the industry, from barrel-aged stouts to the shape of modern pilsner. They’ve created what remains arguably the best beer festival in the world today. And their consistency is nearly unrivaled. All of these things make for the most consistently outstanding brewery of the decade, taking the whole of the 2010s into consideration.
On the beer side of the equation, Firestone has the unique distinction of having a top-tier example of nearly every popular style. Classic IPA is represented by Union Jack, the beer that finished #1 the first time Paste ever conducted an IPA tasting, way back in 2013. Hazy IPA now has the year-round Mind Haze, one of the few widespread hazy challengers to the likes of Sierra Nevada’s Hazy Little Thing. Standard-strength stout receives the sumptuous Velvet/Mocha Merlin. Easy Jack is among the best low-ABV IPAs. Pivo exposed the U.S. to “Italian-style” pilsner. The wild side of the spectrum hits such highs as the cherry-based Krieky Bones, or even the pumpkin-infused El Gourdo. And then there are all the barrel-aged beauties, from barleywine (Sucaba), to imperial stout (Parabola), to each year’s masterpiece of an Anniversary Ale, blended by Paso Robles’ wine-blending community. No other brewery explores so many different avenues, while doing them all equally well.
And then there are factors like the Firestone Walker Invitational, which helped to alter the very DNA of how beer festivals were planned and attended in the U.S. This change of focus, away from large-scale festivals with sprawling guest lists, and onto highly curated, smaller festivals that seek to maximize the quality of each offering, went a long way in keeping the idea of “beer fests” relevant as we progressed into the second half of the decade.
In the end, the lion (or the bear, take your pick) wears the crown.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.